Is it Ignorance or Apathy?
(1 Thessalonians 5: 1-24)
After losing a hotly contested election a reporter asked the losing politician if he thought the reason he lost was ignorance or apathy? The politician responded: “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” I’ve been struggling with ignorance and apathy for most of my life with much of it of my own making. One of my many examples of personal ignorance and apathy was evidenced when I was at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas, lobbying on behalf of the Houston Police Patrolman’s Union back in the early 1980s. I was the president and was at the capitol working on some police related legislation. I was hanging around a legislator’s office relaxing and eating pizza when I struck up a conversation with the Superintendent of Schools for the Houston Independent School District. I asked him what he was working on and he told me he was trying to get some legislation passed that would provide for free or reduced lunches for children. I was shocked and mildly outraged. What parent would send their child to school hungry! My wife made sure my kids were fed and took a lunch to school every day. Why should I have to pay for what some other person should do as a responsible parent. The Superintendent recognized my ignorance and, rather than point it out, calmly explained that if a child was hungry and worried about getting something to eat, it was harder for them to concentrate on their studies. He gently explained it was not the fault of the child if their parent, for whatever reason, didn’t feed them or provide a lunch. His mission was to educate children and a child distracted by hunger was an impediment to the fulfillment of the district’s mission. Being firmly entrenched in my ignorance, I scoffed and paid him no mind, secure in my own blanket of apathy. It wasn’t until a few years later when we moved to rural East Texas and I got on the local School Board and Teresa got a job as an Early Childhood, Special Education teacher, that I realized how grave the problem was. My Superintendent made the issue clear to me, and Teresa would come home and tell pitiful stories about some of her students being hungry, wearing worn out clothes, and being filthy. Before she could even begin trying to educate them each day, she had to address these issues. Can you imagine having to feed, bathe, and wash a child’s clothes before you could begin the daily instruction? It broke my heart. My eyes had been opened and I saw that something had to be done.
In our scripture reading for today, the Apostle Paul is talking about how we, as Christians, are supposed to conduct ourselves as we await the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. He tells us that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night and, as Followers of the Way, we should not be surprised when it happens. Until that day, we should conduct ourselves as children of the light, children of the day. Children who see clearly. We need to be alert and self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate and the hope of salvation as a helmet. He says we need to encourage one another and build each other up. We are to respect those who work hard among us and hold them in high regard in love because of their work. We must live in peace with each other. Paul says we are to warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak and be patient with everyone. He instructs us to make sure nobody pays back wrong for wrong, always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else. Be joyful always, Paul says, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire, test everything, hold on to the good and avoid every kind of evil.
I think it’s good that we don’t know exactly when Christ will return. If we knew the precise date, we might be tempted to become lazy in our work for Christ, putting off to tomorrow what we should be doing today. Heaven is not our only goal; we have work to do as long as we’re here. As Christians, we must keep on doing God’s work until we die, or we see the unmistakable return of our Savior. We should be so excited about what we’re doing that we’re worried about getting it done before Jesus comes back.
At my recent District Committee On Ministry meeting I was asked how I/we were making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I took the opportunity to brief them on our phenomenal mission effort and outreach into the community that continues to expand and strengthen as the Spirit presents us with new opportunities. I was questioned as to whether or not I thought the mission emphasis was producing disciples. I was somewhat taken aback but answered that I thought it was making disciples. I told them that the existing members were energized and engaged and that we had attracted new people to the church due to our reputation for being mission oriented. I told them it was evident by the fact that I now had people thinking about church on days other than Sunday, that we were looking for more mission field engagement and that for the first time in years, I had missionaries, actual people who were taking ownership of some of our missions. I then told them it was my plan for this coming year to take that effort and energy and look for ways to focus on the social justice issues that were driving the need for our mission engagement.
So, what does that mean? It means that there are things wrong in our community that need to be addressed, and we should have a voice in how those issues are being addressed or not addressed. You may be wondering how is that our responsibility? That sounds like a job for some other entity. If you thought that, you’d be right, but we have a Christian and Methodist obligation to see to it that whoever is responsible is being held accountable. Paragraph 162 of our Book of Discipline, The Social Community reads, in part; The rights and privileges a society bestows or withholds from those who comprise it indicate the relative esteem in which that society holds particular persons and groups of persons. We affirm all persons as equally valuable in the sight of God. We therefore work toward societies in which each person’s value is recognized, maintained, and strengthened. We support the basic rights of all person to equal access to housing, education, communication, employment, medical care, legal redress for grievances, and physical protection. We deplore acts of hate or violence against groups of persons based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender identity, or religious affiliation.
Are we apathetic or ignorant to the issues of which the Book of Discipline said concern us as a people? I do not believe for one moment that the congregation of Community United Methodist Church is apathetic or indifferent to the plight of the unfortunate around us. As the Pharisees were indifferent to the sufferings of the Jewish people, and just as the Church of England was apathetic to downtrodden people who were living in the shadows of their cathedrals, we are not. I also do not think we’re ignorant. We’re not stupid, but we do have to educate ourselves to what is going on around us as far as our fellow citizens are concerned. We have to care enough to become informed. When we see a problem, we have to ask ourselves if we are ignorant as to why this problem or these conditions exist and what can we do to educate ourselves and take the appropriate action.
The key to ministry is sensitively sensing the condition of each person or groups of persons and offering the appropriate remedy for each situation. We can’t effectively help until we know and understand the problem. We can’t apply the medicine until we know where the wound is. When we’ve made a conscious decision to do what God says, we begin to see people and their problems in a new perspective.
We’ve just had our Charge Conference and have elected some new committee members who will join the existing committees in January. My plan is to work with these committees to identify social justice issues that impact our mission focus and come up with ways in which we can make our voices and our concerns heard and, in the long run, make a difference. This will not be easy, and we will need to constantly encourage one another. Words of encouragement at the right moment can be the difference between finishing well and collapsing along the way. We cannot and must not fail. We are not apathetic. We care, we care deeply, or we wouldn’t be here. We are not ignorant, we see what is going on around us and, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we will be given the direction and the drive to see the work and will of God through to completion right up to the day Jesus comes again in victory.
Please pray with me.
Most loving and compassionate God, open our eyes so that we may see those glimpses of truth that you have for us. The truth that sets us free from our guilt and shame, our ignorance and our apathy. The truth that frees us to do your will and work as we eagerly await the return of your Son, Jesus Christ. Open our ears so that we can hear the cries of the helpless and hopeless. Open our mouths so that we can speak of your righteousness and tell those in authority the truths of your love for all people and that no one should suffer at the hands of others. We are ready, O God, thy will to see. Illumine us Spirit divine. Amen.